The call to close a medical equipment sterilization plant in Cobb County is getting louder.
Sterigenics — and other facilities that disinfect medical equipment — uses a chemical called ethylene oxide to do it.
That compound is directly linked to increases in cancer. And there are significantly higher rates of cancer in areas around metro Atlanta facilities that use the gas, including Smyrna and Covington.
Monday night, another forum to address residents’ concerns drew a big crowd — the biggest yet.
More than 1,000 people came out to the Cobb Civic Center. Two hours in, and the crowd was nowhere near as big as where it started. And many of those who stayed left knowing little more than when they came.
Mary Coons was there from before the town hall started and stayed until after everyone left. She’s part of a grassroots community effort to shut down Sterigenics’ Smyrna plant.
As folks streamed in Monday night, Coons kept busy behind a folding table outside the Cobb Civic Center’s main foyer. It featured pamphlets, bright orange T-shirts, signs and bumper stickers. They said things like “SAY NO to ETO” and “ETO MUST GO.” ETO is the abbreviation for ethylene oxide.
Coons said she’s here out of civic duty.
“I care about my community. I care about my neighborhood and the little girls who live next door,” she said. “And I don’t want them to go through what I went through.”
What Coons went through is breast cancer.
She lives about 3 miles from the Sterigenics plant, and ethylene oxide is linked to higher rates of cancers — breast cancer, specifically, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“I can’t make a complete connection that my cancer was caused by this, but I don’t have any sort of genetic connection to breast cancer,” Coons said. “And I was 45, which they consider young when I was diagnosed. So that kind of gets you excited.”
She’d hoped the town hall meeting happening just inside the doors to her right would provide answers. After all, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was behind the forum. Top scientists from Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division also presented.
But Coons, like many of the 1,000 or so folks who showed up, heard something altogether different.
Scientists admitted they didn’t know a lot about ethylene oxide’s toxicity and, until recently, how much of a cancer threat its presence represented.
Kelly Rimer, who leads the EPA’s Air Toxics Assessment Group, put it this way: Science is always moving forward. “And recently, the new studies about ethylene oxide tell us it’s more potent than science previously understood.”
What’s known. What isn’t. How scientists test for and monitor ethylene oxide. There were a lot of words related to that circulating the venue. But, attendees said, it was two hours of information void of answers.
They wanted answers.
At one point, Smyrna resident Sue Levine got up and left. She was surprised to see how many of her fellow neighbors were also walking out
“We don’t know what to do,” Levine admitted, saying that those affected are turning to each other and forming support groups.
They’re also looking to lawmakers for help.
One of them, Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan, spoke to the media after the town hall.
She said only Gov. Brian Kemp had the authority to shut down Sterigenics, and she pointed to Illinois as an example, where its governor had done just that.
Jordan said she asked Kemp to step in and shut down the facilities until they could prove they weren’t spewing ethylene oxide into the environment.
She said that request had gone unanswered.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Kemp met with the executives of Sterigenics and BD Bard, which uses the chemical gas at its Covington facility.
His office issued this statement late Tuesday:
“As Governor, my number one job is keeping Georgia families safe. While we had productive conversations with BD Bard and Sterigenics this afternoon, our work is not done. I appreciate Sterigenics’ willingness to voluntarily agree to a significant reduction in ethylene oxide emissions. This proactive measure demonstrates the company’s commitment to the local community and helps to restore public confidence in its operations. Now, BD Bard should do the same. My administration remains committed to the safety of Georgians in every corner of our state, and we will continue to operate with transparency and demand accountability throughout this process.”